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The Catholic Church Needs to Embrace Single Parents Like Me

Pope Francis waves at the end of his weekly general audience on Saint-Peter's square at the Vatican on October 22, 2014.
Pope Francis waves at the end of his weekly general audience on Saint-Peter's square at the Vatican on October 22, 2014. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE—AFP/Getty Images

What I’m simply proposing is a little more recognition

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

Well, the Extraordinary Synod for the Family, has ended, and not surprisingly single parents have gotten the same sort of polite inattention from the Catholic bishops that we are used to getting in the pews.

Special attention should be given to the accompaniment of single-parent families, in a particular way to help women who have to carry alone the responsibility of the home and raising children.

That vague-sounding one line was all the consideration single parents saw in the final relatio. Thank you for that, now we can go back to subsisting on the crumbs from the masters table, while the “divorced-and-remarried” and the “gifted gay Catholics” enjoy all kinds of concerned hand-writing from the hierarchy and, for that matter, from the secular press.

That one single line of attention given to such a large, hugely ignored faction of the Church is almost patronizing, like “oh, yeah, those people also; we are mentioning them here, so that base is covered.”

It’s so unbelievably isolating being a single parent in the Church. Where exactly do we fit in? We are not singles eligible for a religious life, we aren’t available to meet during the day for mommies groups, and we’re too divorced for married ministries.

However, the lack of outreach programs available to us isn’t what is the most upsetting — it’s the overall dismissive attitude to our situation.

Personally, I feel all these specialty groups, catered to specific demographics within the Church, do more to divide and isolate us than they do to build camaraderie. It’s the complete anti-thesis of the word “universal”, which is what Catholic means.

When you start dividing the body of the Church up based on age or marital status you run the risk of creating little cliques. These cliques prevent us from socializing and getting to know other members of our own parishes. I’ve been at my parish three years, same seat every week, and I’ve been greeted by only one other family.

We’ve become a church of strangers.

I don’t think another special interest group for single parents is the answer. It’s nice to commiserate, but I can’t think of anything more depressing than a group of single people sitting around talking about how single they are.

What I’m simply proposing is a little more recognition — a blurb in the bulletin, a priestly mention in the prayer intentions during mass, a homily or two about saints who were raised by single parents or were single parents themselves, and lastly, when speaking of families in general, recognize that single parents and their children are indeed still very much families.

Single parents work all day, and spend all evening taking care of our children, so we don’t have the time or resources to rally on our own behalf; in fact, we shouldn’t have to. We shouldn’t be protesting and writing articles on the internet about how we’ve gotten overlooked yet again. The Church should be aware of our existence at this point, recognize our growing numbers, and be there to offer the support we desperately need. At the very least acknowledge, that we exist.

Honestly, it’s just about being seen. That’s all it’s ever been about.

Every single parent has heard the statistics that their children are at a higher risk for lower grades and a life of crime, what we need to hear is some encouragement. I’ve met priests raised by single mothers who’ve mentioned that fact almost apologetically. To them I say, share your story with your parishioners. Give us some hope and encouragement.

Katrina Fernandez is a Patheos Catholic writer and single parent who blogs at The Crescat.

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Mourning Ferguson

Hundreds March on Day of Civil Disobedience in St. Louis
A protester is seen during the demonstrations outside a Walmart shop in the St. Louis region during the Moral Mondays day of Civil Disobedience in Ferguson, Missouri, on October 13, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Sharon E. Watkins is the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.

We haven’t taken the time to delve into the longstanding tensions that set the stage for the protests

Maya Angelou once said, “Prejudice is a burden which confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”

As I pray, write and think about Ferguson, I, like many of you, am searching for words and thoughts that serve to enter on the way toward wholeness in a very broken time in our nation’s history. So what words do we offer? How do we resist the sins of our past and make accessible in the present a way toward righteousness and peace?

Recently, I read a blog by Rachel Held Evans, who suggests that the place to start in our reflection on Ferguson is with lament. As Paul says in Romans 12:15, “weep with those who weep.” Then listen and learn. Then finally “loosen the chains” (Isaiah 58:6) with informed, prayerful action.

I think she’s right. We can lament, listen and then act. Ferguson challenges us all to engage, to listen to the pain, to name our fears, to hold each conversation in God’s loving embrace, knowing that we are all children of God.

Surprisingly, listening may be the hardest part. To seek understanding of the point of view of another requires patience and a setting aside of our own agendas. In our politicized climate, fear and distrust frequently take center stage before we ever hear the first words uttered by someone we perceive as on the “other side” of an issue. I have experienced this myself when I was immediately accused of disparaging law enforcement officers when I suggested racism may have had a role in the disturbances in Ferguson. We haven’t taken the time to delve into the longstanding tensions that set the stage for the protests, preferring instead to turn trolls in social media with superficial understandings.

As I think about Ferguson, the greater St. Louis community and our nation, I picture Jesus weeping at the pain of a city, conversing at the table with people with whom he disagreed, standing up for the downtrodden, being willing to die for the reconciliation of us all to God and to each other. I hear the risen Christ calling us to cast aside fear and instead to lament, listen and act as God guides us, each in our own place.

In the meantime, please join me in continued prayer over Ferguson, and all our communities, that we may together find the pathways toward healing and hope, reconciliation and wholeness.

Sharon E. Watkins is the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. She was the first woman to lead a mainline denomination in the U.S., and has served on the Advisory Council of the White House’s Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Watkins is the author ofWhole: A Call to Unity in a Fragmented World, and holds a doctoral degree from Phillips Theological Seminary and Master of Divinity from the Yale Divinity School.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Is Alliance Defending Freedom the Next Hobby Lobby?

God Meets Profit as Justices Weigh Obamacare Contraceptive Rule
Paul Clement, lawyer arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., center, speaks to the media with David Cortman, senior counsel and vice-president of religious liberty with Alliance Defending Freedom, right, following arguments in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Eric Yoffie was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012.

If a church or its religious leader wants to enter the partisan political fray and support a specific candidate, that is one step too far

Electioneering from the pulpit is a very bad idea, but champions of this particular bad idea seem to feel that its time has come. Let’s hope, for the sake of religion in America, that they are wrong.

On October 5, referred to by its organizers as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” more than 1,500 pastors preached sermons about political candidates and their views on matters before the electorate. The day was organized by Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that advocates the absolute right of clergy to endorse candidates or parties without interference from the government or the IRS.

According to IRS regulations, churches can speak out on issues and values; however, they are forbidden to participate in political campaigns or to intervene in any way on behalf of any political candidate. A pastor can give a sermon on poverty or health care, but violates IRS policy if he endorses a candidate. Breaking these rules can lead to the revocation of the church’s tax-exempt status.

The rules, supported by most Americans, are eminently sensible. Freedom of speech and religion are guaranteed by the Constitution, and a priest, rabbi or imam can say whatever he or she pleases from the pulpit. But the Constitution does not guarantee places of worship the benefits of tax exemption, which are considerable. According to Dylan Matthews in the Washington Post, these subsidies cost the government $80 billion in revenue every year. In short, the American people value religion and are prepared, by way of their government’s taxing authority, to foot the bill for much of the good work that places of worship do. But if a church or its religious leader wants to enter the partisan political fray and support a specific candidate, that is one step too far. In that case, the church is required to give up its tax exemption and pay for its electioneering itself.

But the Alliance disagrees. It contends that freedom of religion confers on clergy the right to endorse local, state and national candidates from the pulpit while their churches retain all of their tax benefits. And the purpose of its current campaign is to prod the IRS into taking action against a pastor who violates the rules, thereby generating a test case that it can carry to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One would like to think that the efforts of the Alliance are doomed to failure. Indeed, for most of the last half century, such a campaign would have seemed fanciful, if not absurd. Its goal, after all, is contrary to both established practice and common sense. Nonetheless, there is reason for concern.

In the first place, the IRS has not consistently enforced its own policies. While the overwhelming majority of clergy do not endorse political candidates, there are exceptions; conservative, Evangelical churches, such as those organized by the Alliance, are one example, and left-leaning African-American churches are another. It’s interesting that Pulpit Freedom Sunday was also the day that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, running for a second term, visited churches in Queens and Brooklyn to ask for support from black congregants. At the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, the Rev. Floyd H. Flake, a former congressman, expressed his support for Cuomo, offering the equivalent of a political endorsement if not a formal one.

Part of the issue seems to be that the IRS does not want a challenge in the courts. Therefore, it has refused to be goaded into taking action by the law breakers, and in particular by the Pulpit Freedom Sunday participants, who have been holding an annual event and growing in numbers for six years. But ignoring enforcement is always a bad strategy. It breeds disrespect for the law and encourages more pulpit law breaking from every political direction.

In the second place, if the IRS finally stands its ground and the result is a legal challenge that reaches the Supreme Court, it is more likely now than before that the Supreme Court will be sympathetic to the Alliance arguments. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., arguably the most significant case of the Supreme Court term, the Court granted a special status to religious objectors and religious freedom that was seemingly without basis in precedent. This is good in some ways, but not so good in others; freedom of religion is not absolute and needs to be balanced against other rights and freedoms. It is hard to imagine the legal grounds for a decision that would grant churches the unrestricted right to enter the political process while still benefiting from the financial largesse of the taxpayer, but such an outcome is no longer impossible.

Once ministers, priests, rabbis and imams are entitled to endorse candidates without restriction, they will be increasingly pressured to do so. The same people who pour money into political campaigns will direct their dollars to houses of worship. And churches, synagogues and mosques will no longer be places of worship; they will be political bazaars.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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What the Synod Taught Us About Pope Francis: He Takes Risks

Pope Francis Leads Ordinary Public Consistory
Pope Francis, flanked by former Vatican Secretary of State cardinal Angelo Sodano arrives at the Synod Hall for ordinary public consistory on Oct. 20, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

If there is a single takeaway, it may be this

The Vatican’s synod concluded Sunday with little fanfare. The bishops in the red and pink zuchettos, or skullcaps, filtered out, many departing for their different corners of the globe. The room’s burgundy, stadium-style seats were empty. The first major policy event of the Francis papacy was a wrap.

A lot happened in that windowless room in Rome over the past two weeks. What began with the Holy Father asking more than 250 participants inside the hall to speak their minds on issues of the family ended with them giving him a five-minute standing ovation. And beyond the hall, the synod prompted a dynamic conversation about where the global Catholic Church is headed under Pope Francis’ leadership.

If there is a single takeaway, it may be this: Pope Francis showed the world that he is not afraid of making mistakes. He takes risks, and his commitment to listening allows a host of voices to rise and controversy to surface.

The first big surprise came on the first day of the second week, when Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary—the synod’s organizer and a man usually seen as a conservative—read aloud a mid-Synod report that to many sounded like a shift in tone on welcoming the gay community. Liberals cried victory and conservatives urged caution. Three days later, the Vatican revised the section headline “welcoming homosexual persons” to “providing for homosexual persons”—but only in English, leaving the official Italian verb the same. The drama fostered murmurings that the mid-Synod document represented just a handful of bishops’ opinions and that Pope Francis stacked the deck of bishops composing the Synod’s report with more liberal voices.

Francis played the controversy close to the chest, but he furthered his own desire for openness and discussion in three ways. First, he requested that the synod’s concluding document be published in full, so everyone could see the vote tallies and the paragraphs that did not pass the bishops’ final approval. Only three paragraphs did not pass—the paragraph that expressed welcome toward gays fell four votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for inclusion, and two paragraphs about divorced and remarried Catholics also did not pass by a slightly larger margin.

Second, Pope Francis did not shy away from difference and challenge. He reminded the bishops in his concluding speech that the synod was “a journey,” full of “running fast,” “fatigue,” “enthusiasm and ardor,” and also acknowledged it was “a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations.”

Third, he showed that amidst it all he maintains a sense of humor—he wryly joked about the “welcoming” gays controversy in the same concluding speech, misusing the word “welcome” and then correcting himself.

“We will speak a little bit about the Pope, now, in relation to the Bishops,” Francis said in Italian, amid some laughter among the bishops. “So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: [rather] to go out and find them.”

The Synod’s peripheral drama also shook up the traditional power players on all sides. Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, a vocal advocate of relaxing rules about communion for the divorced and remarried, got caught in an odd interview and ensuing controversy for saying that African bishops “should not tell us too much what we have to do,” and he distanced himself from the remarks. Cardinal Raymond Burke—a conservative whom Pope Francis had already removed from the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops—confirmed to the National Catholic Reporter that he will be removed from his post as chief justice at the Vatican’s highest court, and when asked who told him he would be removed, he said, “Who do you think?”

Many of the subtleties of the event, and the esoteric ways of the church, were lost in the way the event was communicated with the world. Much of the global coverage confused the Synod’s possibilities and its outcomes. After news reports that the Vatican was announcing an historic welcome of gays, mainstream outlets were forced to walked back the news. Some blamed the Vatican for a reversal, when in fact no conclusion had even been reached. Reuters said the bishops “reversed a historic acceptance of gays, dropping parts of a controversial document that had talked more positively of homosexuals than ever before in Church history.”

It would be wrong to cast the Synod in terms of such reversals or failures—gay marriage was never on the table, and reaching consensus implies that that was this Synod’s primary goal in the first place. Francis sought from the beginning to listen, and in true Jesuit style, to learn together what issues are facing families in the changing global context.

It also became clear that not all the issues about the family got similar play. By the synod’s end, issues of sexual ethics like divorce and homosexuality remained the hot-button issues. Big challenges to family life like war, disease, migration and sexual abuse failed to make a real appearance in the concluding document.

While no one knows the future, Pope Francis is looking toward newness. “God is not afraid of new things!” he preached at the Synod’s closing mass on Sunday when he beatified Pope Paul VI. “Here is where our true strength is found. … It is so that we can live this life to the fullest—with our feet firmly planted on the ground—and respond courageously to whatever new challenges come our way.”

The challenges to newness ahead are plenty. This Synod was just the beginning of the Church’s deep dive into global family life. Next fall a larger group of bishops will gather in Rome to conclude the process this synod started, and as Pope Francis reminded the bishops in his concluding remarks on Saturday, “We still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront.”

The intervening time will tell what taste this year’s gathering leaves in people’s mouths. Synods, in many ways, are like summer camps: pack a group of devotees together in a pressure cooker environment for a short but intense period of time, let thoughts and emotions run deep, and see what relationships and opinions last for the long term.

Pope Francis, for his part, is pressing on. Monday morning, he returned to the same windowless room with a new set of cardinals. The topic this time? Crises facing Christians in the Middle East.

TIME faith

Vatican Changes Draft Report Translation About Welcoming Gays

Pope Francis arrives at a morning session of a two-week synod on family issues, at the Vatican, Oct. 16, 2014.
Pope Francis arrives at a morning session of a two-week synod on family issues, at the Vatican, Oct. 16, 2014. Alessandra Tarantino—AP

"Welcoming homosexual persons” is now “Providing for homosexual persons"

The Vatican adjusted the English translation of a controversial phrase in its mid-Synod-of-the-Bishops report on Thursday, adapting “Welcoming homosexual persons” to “Providing for homosexual persons.”

The original Italian verb in question, accogliere, remains unchanged. Italian is the official language of the bishops’ meeting, and because the official language of the document is Italian, a Vatican spokesman explained at a press briefing, the report has technically stayed the same.

Parts of the paragraph that followed that phrase have also been updated in English. According to the Associated Press:

The first version asked if the church was capable of “welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities.” The new version asks if the church is “capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing … them … a place of fellowship in our communities.” The first version said homosexual unions can often constitute a “precious support in the life of the partners.” The new one says gay unions often constitute “valuable support in the life of these persons.”

Initial reaction suggests that the original English translations more closely follow the Italian. The change comes after press reports of a Vatican shift on teachings of marriage as between one man and one woman flooded the Western media earlier this week. In Thursday’s press briefing, a Vatican spokesperson urged media to not give too much importance to the new translation change.

Translation issues have prompted confusion at several points during the Synod so far. Summaries of Synod conversations have been relayed to the press at daily briefings in Italian, English and Spanish, and different points have been emphasized depending on the language of the person giving the briefing. Questions at the daily press briefings are also asked in a variety of languages, and usually replied to in Italian, English, Spanish or French. That means a question asked in English has been responded to in Italian, or a question in Italian could get a response in French.

A final Synod “message,” not report, is expected to be approved Saturday, according to the Vatican’s press office. The message will be composed by a group of church leaders. Pope Francis also added South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier to that group on Thursday. Napier has been critical of the initial mid-Synod report this week. “The message has gone out and it’s not a true message,” he told the press after the report was released on Monday. “Whatever we say hereafter is going to be as if we’re doing some damage control.”

TIME faith

It’s Time for Whites to Accept Responsibility for Racist Systems

Hundreds march on day of disobedience in St. Louis
Clergy members lead hundreds of protestors march from Wellspring Church to the Ferguson police station in an act of civil disobedience on October 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Ferguson must be a moral wake-up call to white parents, not just another warning to black parents

I and many other faith leaders came to Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday and Monday because of Michael Brown—an 18-year-old black teenager who, though unarmed, was shot and killed by a white police officer on August 9. My first thoughts when I heard the news were about my 16-year-old son Luke. I knew how unlikely it would be that this would ever happen to my white son in America.

Coming to Ferguson was about Michael Brown. But Ferguson has also become a parable for our nation. Jesus often told parables. A parable is just a story, but often one with a simple but important point.

The Ferguson parable is simply this: black lives in America are worth less than white lives—especially in our criminal justice system. And the parable of Ferguson rings true around the nation, with the many young black men who were and have been assaulted, shot and killed before and after Michael Brown.

The big question for us is, how long will we accept the unacceptable? When will we decide to right this unacceptable wrong? I believe that is a question for parents, and for white parents in particular. How long will white parents accept the fact that the lives of children of black parents’ are worth less in our police and criminal justice systems than the lives of white sons and daughters?

Black parents are friends we meet through our children’s schools, colleagues in our workplaces, and the moms and dads we sit with at baseball and soccer games. Black parents are our brothers and sisters in Christ if we call ourselves Christians. So let’s be honest. If white Christians in America were willing to act more Christian that white when it comes to race, black parents would be less fearful for their children.

Every black parent I know or have ever spoken to has “The Talk” with their sons and daughters. “The Talk” is a conversation about how to behave and not to behave–“keep your hands open and out in front of you, shut your mouth, be respectful, say sir”–when you find yourself in the presence of a white policeman with a gun. But white parents don’t have to have this talk with their kids. That’s a radical difference between the experiences of black and white parents in America. How can we continue to accept that? Ferguson must be a moral wake-up call to white parents, not just another warning to black parents. That’s why I went to Ferguson this weekend and why I got arrested.

As a Little League baseball coach, I know that all the black parents of kids I have coached have had “The Talk,” while none of the white parents have had such conversations with their children. And most white parents haven’t got a clue that those talks are going on between their son’s black teammates and his parents. So what does it really mean to be teammates?

As Nicholas Kristof said in his Sunday New York Times column: “The greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. Too many whites unquestioningly accept a system that disproportionately punishes blacks… We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.”

Let me add a tougher conclusion. To my white brothers and sisters: you can’t continue to say you are not racist when you continue to accept and support systems that are. It’s time for white people to take responsibility for our acceptance of racist systems.

These conversations will make people uncomfortable, and they should. I want to ask white parents to ask their black parent friends about “The Talk.” Ask them if they have had the talk with their sons. What did they say? What did their son say? How did it feel for them to have that conversation with their son? What’s it like not to be able to trust law enforcement in their own community?

The time for zero tolerance of racial policing has come. It’s time to right an unacceptable wrong. It’s time for white parents to join with black parents to make that happen. And it’s time for white Christians to join black Christians and say that black lives are important; all lives are important. These kids are not just God’s kids, they are our kids.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The UnCommon Good is available in stores.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Pope Francis’ ‘Soft Power’ Diplomacy Aims to Bring Islam Into the Modern World

Pope Francis gives a press conference as he flies back to Rome from Tirana, on September 21, 2014.
Pope Francis gives a press conference as he flies back to Rome from Tirana, on September 21, 2014. Filippo Moneforte—AFP/Getty Images

Francis Rooney served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.

Pope Francis is picking up where Pope Benedict left off, drawing the Holy See into the global search for solutions to religiously inspired terrorism

The pope’s recent visit to Albania to emphasize the successful inter-religious coalition government there marked another important expression of the Holy See’s “soft power” diplomacy at work in the global confrontation of radical elements within Islam. He took this opportunity to highlight a situation in which Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics co-exist and govern peacefully in the birthplace of Mother Teresa.

In his speech at the presidential palace, Pope Francis remarked on the “peaceful coexistence and collaboration” and “climate of mutual respect” among different religious groups in Albania, formerly one of the harshest communist regimes. This stands in stark contrast to what is taking place in Iraq and Syria right now. There, he said, religion is being used as a “shield” to support “violence and repression.”

These words bring to mind Pope Benedict’s address at Regensburg in September 2006, whereupon he delivered the most clear and striking critique of radicalized Islam and the use of religion as an excuse for violence and mayhem. Pope Francis is in some ways picking up where Pope Benedict left off, drawing the Holy See directly into the global search for solutions to radicalized Islam and religiously inspired terrorism. He is using the “soft power” voice of the Holy See and its moral authority in the world to leverage and support the efforts of other like-minded nations around the globe.

It has now been announced that Pope Francis will make a state visit to Turkey in November. As with Pope Benedict’s visit there in 2006, a papal visit to the secular Islamic nation will garner the attention of everyone who is concerned about the violence and civil wars in the Middle East. Like the Albania visit, the Pope’s very presence will symbolize hopes for genuine religious tolerance and inter-religious dialogue, while drawing the clear distinction between religion and lawlessness and murder.

Following Regensburg, several groups of Islamic scholars acknowledged that Koranic teaching must reconcile with modernity. Pope Francis’ engagement of the Holy See, both in calling for an end to the persecution of Christians and implying recently that even military opposition to ISIS in Iraq and Syria could be supported a “just war,” has similarly brought constructive results. Consistent with the need for a broad “community of nations” to justify a military response, Secretary John Kerry has worked hard to bring the countries nearest to the conflict, especially Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt and Turkey, into a coalition.

In recent weeks, Grand Mufti Abdul-Aziz, the leading Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia, spoke out clearly against radicalism in response to King Abdullah’s public request for all clerics to raise their voices on this issue. While King Abdullah visited Pope Benedict in the aftermath of Regensburg, this is the most clear expression of Saudi opposition to radicalism to date.

On September 10, some two dozen MuslimAmerican leaders met in Washington with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and spoke out against Islamic terrorism and the recruitment of young Muslim Americans to extremism. More recently, in a direct reference to the need for “soft power” solutions, the Minister of Religious Affairs for Jordan, Hayil Abdelhafeez Dawoud, told the Wall Street Journal that “to fight terrorism, we need to fight its ideology. It can’t be solved militarily.”

George Weigel has recently summarized the problem and suggested a solution, stating that the modern world is at a crossroads with Islam, which requires that Islam reconcile its theology with the tolerance, freedom and respect for human life that the rest of the civilized world has come to expect, as well as with the nature of the secular, modern state and its relationship to religion.

While optimism is hard to find right now, and the violence and persecution in the Middle East and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa continue unchecked, these recent expressions offer promise that a broad community of nations will congeal to create a supportable, “just” force against Islamic extremists and that the Muslim states and leaders themselves will work to devise theological and philosophical constructions to bring Islam at large into accord with the modern world.

No sovereign is more aligned with these efforts nor more suited to weigh in diplomatically than the Holy See and Pope Francis.

Francis Rooney served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008, and is author of the book, The Global Vatican.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Blocked From Pope’s Synod By Ebola, Liberia’s Bishop Tells His Nation’s Story

Gbarnga ebola
Grave diggers prepare for new Ebola victim outside an Ebola treatment center in Gbarnga, Liberia on Oct. 7, 2014. John Moore—Getty Images

“As Bishop of my people I carry within my heart their wounds and pains every moment of life here,” says Bishop Anthony Borwah

One bishop is absent from Pope Francis’ Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the family. He was invited, he wanted to come, his name is on the participant list, but he is not in Rome. He is some 4,000 miles away. And few—if any—people outside the synod hall even know he is not there.

His name is Bishop Anthony Borwah, 48, and he leads the Catholic Diocese of GBarnga in central Liberia, where Ebola is wreaking havoc. Tony, as he is called, learned he could not travel to the Synod in late August, when the Ivory Coast closed its borders due to the Ebola outbreak and restricted the one airline that could have taken him to Abidjan, where he needed to apply in person for a Schengen visa to travel to the European Union.

(PHOTOS: See How A Photographer Is Covering Ebola’s Deadly Spread)

Borwah may not be at the Synod, nor is he able to participate remotely due to technological limits, but the gathering’s focus on the family is vital to his Liberian families. Ebola is their most urgent challenge, but it is not the only one, he explained to TIME in this exclusive interview. Borwah submitted an essay to the Synod—an “intervention” in Vatican-speak—about the situations facing Liberian families. Borwah’s essay is not being read aloud at the Synod but will be entered into the written record and considered in any final documents that the Synod produces.

“Enormous are the pastoral challenges of the family in Liberia today,” his essay begins, before continuing to describe the challenges including Ebola, polygamy, migration, unemployment, the lack of a father-figures, domestic violence, child trafficking, and sexual tourism. “Existential questions from the poor, prevalently during the Civil war, are been asked again: Where is God? What wrong have we (Liberians) done again? How come we have once again become the abandoned and scum of the earth?”

(PHOTOS: Inside the Ebola Crisis: The Images That Moved Them Most)

The past few months since Ebola outbreak have been brutal for Liberia, where about 69% of the population is Christian, according to Pew Research Center. Borwah has lost dear friends to the virus, including his spiritual director, Father Miguel from Spain, his mentor and medical doctor Abraham Borbor, and his prayer partner Tidi Dogba. While the Catholic community as a whole has not had many deaths in Gbarnga, he says, those who are dying are relatives and friends. “As Bishop of my people I carry within my heart their wounds and pains every moment of life here,” he says.

The Liberian Catholic community is doing what it can to combat the virus. Borwah has called on all Catholics in his diocese to gather in prayer against Ebola from 5 to 6 p.m. every day from September 1 through November 30. The church uses the first ten minutes for education and updates about Ebola, and then for the last 50 minutes they pray with the Holy Rosary. They are observing strict medical rules about what kind of interaction they can have while together for prayer. No touching, no handshakes, and entrances of churches, homes, and offices have buckets of chlorinated water for hand washing.

The Catholic Church is also collaborating with the government on the national Ebola Task Force Team, Borwah says. The National Catholic Health Team is training nurses in three Catholic dioceses in Liberia, and Catholic clinics remain open. “Our Human Rights Department is also actively involved in violations issue[s] that may occur under such a crisis situation and the state of emergency when rights are restricted,” Borwah adds. “We hope to soon begin the distribution of food to mainly quarantined communities and other affected areas.”

The Ebola devastation extends beyond just a health crisis for Liberian families. The virus’ highly contagious nature means that family members are kept at a great distance from infected loved ones. Ignoring the restriction, on the other hand, can lead to death, but Liberian families are very affectionate especially in difficult times, Borwah explains, and the inability to show real human kindness is wounding morale.

Poverty is also increasing, he says. Already more than 80% of families in Liberia live below the poverty line, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. Now the price of rice and other essential commodities has spiked since the ebola outbreak due to port and border closures, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Labor shortages due to migration restrictions are also putting the fall’s rice and maize harvests at risk. Women, the FAO has noted, are particularly hard hit as many are the primary caregivers and can’t repay their small business loans. Schools are closed while the virus is present, and so students stay home and teachers do not get paid. “The Ebola situation has badly crippled the economy resulting in rife impoverishment and hunger,” Borwah says.

Increased poverty means increased desperation over the loss of family members to Ebola, he continues. That frustration is compounded when the government buries or cremates loved ones, often without family members present. “These new wounds are a tragic addition to festering wounds that families here experienced as a result of a more than 15 years of fratricidal civil war that officially ended a decade ago,” he says.

Borwah is grateful for global aid groups and donors like Catholic Relief Services and CAFOD, the official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales, but more support is needed, especially when it comes to supporting survivors. “Recently one of the survivors—my kinsman—committed suicide when people avoided him and he felt that he was unworthy of love anymore,” Borwah says. “We need more support to feed the thousand whom are hungry and angry and to care and counsel the Ebola survivors who carry the stigma.”

There is a dimension to the Ebola outbreak that also concerns him—the idea that Ebola’s spread could have a man-made and not just a natural source. “I believe that the causes of Ebola are not just physical but spiritual,” he says. “I like calling it the ‘Ebola phenomenon’ because it’s existence raises more questions than answers.”

Then there are Liberia’s non-Ebola-related challenges. Infidelity in marriages is common, with the causes ranging from poverty (mostly on the part of the women) and cultural permissiveness (on the part of the men), he says. “Generally the economy of the nation is in the pocket of few men, hence there is a lot of women prostitution,” he says. “I often say that these prostitutes are prophets and friends of Jesus as they signify the inequality, marginalization and injustice meted out against the poor and nobodies of our society especially women.”

Women, he adds, are generally subject to men culturally, and are often subjected to brutal domestic violence and impoverishment. The government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has done a lot to raise the dignity of womanhood in beloved Liberia, he continues, but “the walk is still too long.”

Families are navigating questions of shifting identity. Western technological and cultural shifts mean that young people often have different value systems from their parents, and that is dividing families. “Parents can no longer control their children in the face of this new ethics, something, which brings a lot of pain and worries about the future of the family,” he says.

Borwah has a message for the world: “The friends of Jesus Christ—the nobodies, the poor, women and the innocents, the caretakers of others—need both the spiritual and material help. They are losing faith, hope and love. They are poorer, hungrier and very desperate. God has not and will not abandon us, so please do not abandon us to the onslaught of Ebola.”

And, in the midst of it all, Pope Francis, Borwah says, has not forgotten the Liberian people. “The Holy Father prays for Ebola stricken people everyday, even as the Synod goes on,” Borwah says. “He is very close to our suffering.”

His final words: “Please pray for us.”

TIME faith

The Bishops Are Catching Up To Pope Francis on Gay Rights

Pope Francis arrives for an afternoon session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican on Oct. 9, 2014. a
Pope Francis arrives for an afternoon session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican on Oct. 9, 2014. a Gregorio Borgia—AP

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

Mercy must be the way forward for the Catholic Church.

Stunning news came from Rome today where the bishops gathered for Pope Francis’s Synod on the Family issued a report suggesting that the Church should create a more inclusive space for gay Catholics to participate in the life of the Church.

In the document, the bishops said without reservation that gay Catholics have “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” From that, they ask: “are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”

This is a stunning language change from the Catholic Church on the question of homosexuality. Since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in 1975 that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” Rome has been clear on where it stands on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex unions. As recently as January 2013, Pope Benedict — while affirming the dignity of the LGBT community — suggested that gay marriage threatens the world’s “justice and peace.”

The Church’s shift on LGBT issues began shortly after Pope Francis’s election in March 2013. In July of last year, Francis famously said, “[i]f someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

But today’s document produced by the bishops shows that Pope Francis’s personal vision is slowly becoming the vision of the universal Church.

This shift is rooted in the pastoral principle of gradualism, which Vatican expert John Thavis describes as “the idea that Catholics move toward full acceptance of church teachings in steps, and the church needs to accompany them with patience and understanding.”

Here’s how the bishops put it:

It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.

The bishops are clearly getting the memo: leading with mercy is clearly the way forward for the Catholic Church. In his first Sunday homily as the Bishop of Rome, Francis said that Jesus’s strongest message in the Gospel is mercy. It too is the most effective means of Christian encounter in a world that — while still longing for a relationship with God — has increasingly become disillusioned with organized religion.

Make no mistake: a Church that leads with the mercy of God is a Church with a future. Experiencing the mercy of God can compel us to at least consider the impossibly good news that God has saved us in Jesus and that no matter who we are, what we’ve done, or how badly we’ve failed, God never grows tired of loving us.

Shortly after the experiencing the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, Peter declared, “in truth, I see that God shows no partiality.” Two millennia later, the Church that Jesus entrusted to Peter is beginning to see anew that same reality: with God’s love in Jesus, no one is excluded and no one is left behind.

Read next: What the Vatican Really Said About Homosexuality

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

What the Vatican Really Said About Homosexuality

Pope Francis leads a mass honouring the canonisation of two Canadian saints in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 12, 2014.
Pope Francis leads a mass honouring the canonisation of two Canadian saints in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 12, 2014. Vincenzo Pinto—AFP/Getty Images

It's not the big shift people think it is

The Catholic world and the media were riled Monday by a Vatican document interpreted by many as signaling a softer church stance toward homosexuality, but the inclusive tone of the document is a long way from actual policy change.

At issue are three words most people have never heard of: Relatio post disceptationem. That’s the name of the document the Catholic Church’s Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops released Monday, one week into the Synod’s gathering to discuss the state of the family in the modern world. It translates, “Report After Debate,” and it was read aloud in the Synod hall to kick off the Synod’s second week. One of the report’s 58 sections—the one causing the biggest stir—is titled, “Welcoming homosexual persons.”

“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” the passage begins. “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

For a Church that has historically linked the word “homosexual” with the word “sin,” the idea of welcoming gays in any capacity can appear to be a significant move. Headlines immediately spoke of a “dramatic shift” and a “more tolerant” stance from the church.

But before rushing to conclusions, everyone, on all sides, should calm down.

First, here’s what the document actually is:

The relatio is a mid-Synod snapshot of 200+ Catholic leaders’ conversations that happened in the Synod hall last week. It is a starting point for conversations as the Synod fathers start small group discussions this week. It is a working text that identifies where bishops need to “deepen or clarify our understanding,” as Cardinal Luis Antonia Tagle put it in Monday’s press briefing. That means that the topic of gays and Catholic life came up in the Synod conversations so far and that it is a topic for continued reflection.

Second, here’s what the document is not:

The relatio is not a proscriptive text. It is not a decree. It is not doctrine, and certainly not a doctrinal shift. It is also not final. “These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view,” the document concludes. “The reflections put forward, the fruit of the Synodal dialogue that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015.”

So, what does all of that mean? Cardinal Tagle perhaps said it best when he said at Monday’s press briefing, with a smile, “The drama continues.”

The relatio reaffirms at several points that marriage is between a man and a woman. Substance on that point is not changing. The Vatican has been repeatedly clear that this Synod will bring no changes to doctrine, or even a final document with new rites. To “welcome gays” does not mean the Church is no longer equating “gay” with “sin.”

Instead, tone—as it has always been with the Francis papacy—is what is on the table. The style that Pope Francis lives is one that starts with a spirit of embrace, of mercy, and not with sin. It begins with figuring out at what points embrace is possible before determining the points at which it is not. That may be one reason why people like top Vatican watcher John Thavis are calling this mid-synod report “an earthquake.”

But it is also important to remember that the Synod on the Family is almost a two-year-long process, and this snapshot is just that, a snapshot of one week in that process. There will be more such snapshot documents in the coming months. The conversation started earlier this year when bishops around the world surveyed their congregations about family life, it kicked off more formally last week with the gathering in Rome, next the bishops will take the conversations back to their communities, next summer there’s the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia (a traditionally conservative American diocese), and then finally next fall there will be the second Synod with even more bishops from around the world with even more discussion.

Looking for revolution can be misleading. It can mar the actual story of what is and what is not happening. Casual Vatican observers—especially those in the United States, where conversations about sexuality have a different trajectory than in the Vatican or in many developing countries—should be careful to not read into the conversation what they want to hear. The interest in a relatio, a relatively obscure document, does however point to another shift: people actually care about what a group of bishops is doing.

That itself, for many, may be a revolution.

Read next: Pope Francis Wouldn’t Have Wanted the Nobel Peace Prize

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